The Canadian Mosaic, Archival Silences, and an Indigenous Presence in Banff

[John Murray Gibbon – Head of C.P.R. publicity], Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Jean A. Hembroff McDonald fonds (V797/I/PA-29).

Daniel R. Meister

Given that Canada is a settler colonial society, it is unsurprising that the lasting metaphor used to describe sociological diversity in the country – that of a mosaic – was popularized by a settler and child of empire: John Murray Gibbon (1875-1952). Gibbon was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to parents of Scottish descent. Prior to moving to Canada, he was educated in Scotland and England, lived in London, and spent some time in Algeria recovering from scrofula. Working as a Publicist for the Canadian Pacific Railway, Gibbon traveled extensively throughout North America. From his first visits to the region, Gibbon felt that something unique was happening on the Canadian prairies, which he described as “Europe transplanted.” In the late 1930s he began using the term “mosaic” to describe the pattern that he saw there. The title first appeared in a radio series he created for the CBC (“Canadian Mosaic: Songs of Many Races”), which he then expanded into a book entitled Canadian Mosaic: The Making of a Northern Nation (1938).

Gibbon’s famous mosaic was shaped by his colonial gaze: it not only excluded all Canadians of non-European descent but also excluded Indigenous Peoples. In his words, “The Canadian race of the future is being superimposed on the original native Indian races and is being made up of over thirty European racial groups…” But he had long been guided on his trail rides by local Nakoda guides, and had even been made an honorary chief in 1944, with the title “Man-of-Many-Sides.” So what was the nature of Gibbon’s relationship with Nakoda peoples? Intrigued, I set out to answer this question during an extended research period at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in January 2020.

[John Murray Gibbon becomes honorary Stoney, Morley, Alberta, Glenbow Library and Archives: PA-1599-336j-1].

Crafting my research plan with the help of the archivists, I quickly learned about what theorists of archives refer to as “archival silences.” In an influential article, Rodney Carter discusses how archives have the power to allow voices to be heard but also have the power to exclude or silence others. Carter’s focus was primarily on state archives, which often reflect the historic or ongoing marginalization and suppression of certain groups. In non-state archives, silences are often a reflection of what was deemed important by the historical figures whose materials make up the bulk of the records preserved. With the collections I was accessing, this silence meant that it was difficult to find out some basic information, such as the role that Nakoda people played in the Trail Riders’ organization.

With the help of the fantastic staff at the Archives (particular thanks are owed to Lindsay Stokalko) I did find sufficient materials to answer, to some degree, the central question that I was posing. However, I ended up having to cast a wide net and, in the process, I ended up learning a lot about the broader history of Banff. I learned that many Indigenous Peoples had connections to the area that became Banff National Park, including the Nakoda. Though Treaty 7, signed in 1877, was part of a larger attempt to assimilate Indigenous Peoples into a sedentary, agriculturalist way of life, Nakoda signers rightly understood that the Treaty would enable them to continue hunting and fishing as they had before. However, the Treaty also stipulated that these activities were subject to government regulation, and that certain tracts of land could later be exempted from these rights “from time to time,” for any purpose.

As such, soon after the park that is now known as Banff was created in 1885, Indigenous Peoples were forbidden to hunt within its borders. As the park’s first superintendent declared, in his first annual report: ‘it is of great importance that if possible the Indians [sic] should be excluded from the Park.’ These sentiments were rooted in concerns about maintaining game within the Park’s borders. As historians Ted Binnema and Melanie Niemi explain, “There is little doubt that the construction of the CPR, fires set by railway locomotives, and the activities of non-native peoples caused much of the game depletion in the Rocky Mountains. But observers and government officials placed most of the blame on [Indigenous] people.”

The land selected for the reserve at Morley, roughly 50km from Banff, was poor for the purposes of agriculture. This, combined with the dwindling number of game, meant that Nakoda communities found it increasingly difficult to obtain sufficient food, a condition that was made worse by the 1902 decision to greatly expand the Park, “to the point that it abutted the Stoney [Nakoda] reserve and included much of their hunting grounds.” In short, the combination of decreased game, hunting regulations, reduced territory, and the pass system (a policy whereby Indigenous Peoples were prohibited from leaving their reserves without the written permission of an “Indian Agent”) meant that they were effectively barred from the Park.[1]

Except, of course, on special occasions. Owing especially to the efforts of Norman Luxton, a prominent business figure in Banff, and his wife Georgina, a settler who had grown up on the Morley reserve, Indigenous Peoples were regularly invited to Banff to participate in such events as the Winter Carnival and “Indian Days” (though the latter predated the Luxtons’ involvement). Of course, present-day scholars have raised a number of questions about the way Indigenous Peoples were employed, positioned, and treated during these events. Nevertheless, given this was a time when the Canadian federal government, through its Department of Indian Affairs, was actively attempting to assimilate Indigenous Peoples into Canadian settler society and eliminate their cultural practices, events like “Indian Days” were rare. According to Courtney Mason, whatever the intentions of the organizers, Nakoda participants used the occasion to return to important sites within the park and reassert their cultural links to the land. While some events were held under the gaze of tourists, in the evenings Nakoda participants would return to their campsites and hold their own cultural events, such as ceremonies, games, and teachings. But the tensions created by the contractual nature of the Nakoda’s invitation to Banff for “Indian Days” and decreased financial support for the event led to its demise, and it was held in Banff for the last time in 1978.[2]

During my stay in Banff, a bus from the Morley Reserve arrived for an “Evening of Indigenous Food & Cultural Learning” (Notably, this event was not a part of the Snow Days Festival that was held around that time.) There, Nakoda Elders and leaders spoke to a small group, including the mayor and other dignitaries, about their connection to the land. Several spoke of their exclusion from Banff, of feeling unwelcome, and of the financial barriers that hindered them from regularly accessing the Park. Many Nakoda speakers brought up Indian Days, and they spoke of it only in positive, longing terms. One Elder described Indian Days as “a fantasy, a dream; it was a place I could be Indigenous.”

In his work on archival silences, Carter reminds us: “It is only in the awareness of silence that we can begin to remedy it.” Fortunately, the Whyte Museum has been working to fill in the gaps in their archival collections, by inviting in those groups who have been excluded and marginalized. So far, one of the main ways this has been done is through the “Recognizing Relations” project. Realizing that one of the major collections of records relating to Indigenous Peoples were photographs that were in many cases uncaptioned or inappropriately captioned, the Museum has worked with Nakoda Elders to help identify the figures portrayed.[3]

“Know Thyself” was the epigraph with which Gibbon opened his book and I think the command is still worth heeding, if not exactly in the way he intended it. We ought to ask difficult questions about how Canadian society, this famed mosaic, was crafted and recrafted over time. We also ought to question the legacy and implications of Gibbon’s way of thinking about diversity in Canada, or what I have elsewhere called his philosophy of cultural pluralism. The place that non-British people held in Canadian society was not random but rather was dictated by class and power: as sociologist John Porter put it, this was a vertical mosaic. Similarly, not all people groups were free to immigrate to Canada nor were all of their cultures recognized or celebrated, this was a racial mosaic.

Daniel R. Meister holds a PhD in Canadian History from Queen’s University and was a Lillian Agnes Jones Fellow at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, 2019-20. A modified version of this post originally appeared in The Cairn 3, no 5 (June 2020).


[1] This paragraph, and the two that precede it, are based on Courtney W. Mason, Spirits of the Rockies: Reasserting an Indigenous Presence in Banff National Park (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014); and Theodore Binnema and Melanie Niemi, “‘let the line be drawn now’: Wilderness, Conservation, and the Exclusion of Aboriginal People from Banff National Park in Canada,” Environmental History 11 (October 2006): 724-50, quotes at 726-27, 728, 729, and 735.

[2] Mason, Spirits of the Rockies, chapter five; and Jonathan Clappterton, “Naturalizing Race Relations: Conservation, Colonialism, and Spectacle at the Banff Indian Days,” Canadian Historical Review 94, no. 3 (September 2013): 349-79. Indian Days was later restarted by Nakoda people as a private event, with only one day open to the public. See Jenna Dulewich, “Nakoda Banff Indian Days returns to traditional land,” Cochrane Today (7 August 2019).

[3] This project was the brainchild of Dagny Dubois; see her “Histories in Relation: Viewing Archival Photographs of Banff Indian Days with Stony Nakoda Elders” (Integrated Studies Final Project, Athabasca University, 2018). Special mention must also be made of the ongoingefforts of Dawn Saunders Dahl, the Indigenous Program Manager at the Whyte Museum, who helped with the evening of learning.

Further Reading

Helpful sources, in addition to those cited above, include Sarah Carter, Aboriginal Peoples and Colonizers of Western Canada to 1900 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999); the award-winning documentary The Pass System (2015); Treaty 7 Elders and Tribal Council with Walter Hildebrandt, Dorothy First Rider, and Sarah Carter, The True Spirit and Original Intent of Treaty 7 (Montreal; McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996); and Chief John Snow, These Mountains are Our Sacred Places: The Story of the Stoney People (Markham, ON: Fifth House, 2005).

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

Please note: encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.